Rethinking Tamil Television News With Walter Lippmann Part – 2
If one agrees with Lippmann’s notion of news, news has a functional attribute: “to signalize an event.” And Lippmann’s notion of truth extends this purpose further by getting us the larger picture of reality in terms of facts. News and truth are not the same , according to Lippmann,but they are tied up inextricably in terms of their purposes with regard to the event. If one applies this logic of news and truth to what Tamil television news channels seek to convey in their “news casts.” what results is a shocking picture of what Lippmann would not have approved, In the name of “news “and “truth,” the news channels which are owned by the politicians take recourse very often to the dissemination of political propaganda as “news” in matters involving their parties and government. When the heat becomes too much for political propaganda to serve as “news,” self-censorship rears its head in the form of news blackout of the inconvenient or negative news about their goings on. What is enacted in the name of news in the Tamil news channels is a clever combination of censorship, as exemplified by the news blackouts, and propaganda to secure the interests of the parties to which the channels owe their allegience. They are also deeply aware of the need to create a pseudo environment as a stand in for reality. And for invoking this pseudo reality, the garb of pseudo television entertainment, as facilitated by the film based television shows, is greatly leveraged. This was well illustrated by Lippmann nearly 90 years before the present quagmire in Tamil television news scape became a reality. Here goes Lippmann on what typifies the state of Tamil television news : …Without some form of censorship, propaganda in the strict sense of the word is impossible. In order to conduct a propaganda there must be some barrier between the public and the event. Access to the real environment must be limited, before anyone can create a pseudo-environment that he thinks wise or desirable. For while people who have direct access can misconceive what they see, no one else can decide how they shall misconceive it, unless he can decide where they shall look, and at what.
On May 07, 2011, the most newsworthy event that required the Indian news media to “signalize” was the appearance of Kanimozhi before the Patiala House Court in New Delhi in the 2G scam case. Majority of the Tamil newspapers and English newspapers as well as television channels in English treated this as the most news worthy event and predictably so because of their adherence to news value parameters. But this was not happening in the case of SUN TV and Kalaignar News as the following data of the news casts of four Tamil channels show. SUN TV failed to “signalize” the event that was most news worthy and instead dealt with the killing of two in the UP farmers stir as the top story. Its 7.00 pm news cast on May 07 2011 had 11 items covering UP farmers’ stir, Hasan Ali case, Karunaniidhi”s statement on threat to freedom of speech, Rabindranath Tagore’s 150th year celebrations and Osama’s Pak connection etc.,, including two on business and one on the IPL match in Kolkatta, but none on what the rest of the television channels in India projected as the number one news story of the day. The same was the case with Kalaignanr News as well. As the channel that is in the eye of the 2G storm, Kalaignar News channel in its 10 pm news cast had 11 items, covering West Bengal elections, UP farmers’ stir, Karunanidhi’s statement on threat to freedom of speech and Veerappa Moily’s proposal on new courts, including one on sports, one on travel options this summer, but none on Kanimozhi’s appearance in court. Predictably, the news cast of their rival poltiical channel, Jaya TV, in its 7.30 pm news cast had Kanimozhi in focus in the first three lead stories among 16 items on other events such as UP farmers’ stir, Osama and ISI link, Condolence message of J Jayalalitha for deceased party workers, Statement on Raja by Puthyia Thamizhagam leader Krishnasamy etc., Here is a case of heightened focus on the rival party’s troubles. This is the reverse of what the other two channels practiced. Both are problematic as they would constantly switch between these positions vis a vis news events, depending on their complicity in the news events. On the other hand, Doordarshan Podhigai had 11 items covering West Bengal elections, Tagore anniversary and 2G case as the first three lead stories. It also had Karunanidhi’s statement on threat to freedom of speech. Strangely and surprisingly, the bulletin on Kalaignar News at 2.00 pm on May 07 2011 did not black out the Kanimozhi news . It had the news of Kanimozhi’s appearance in court in the third place after the stories on Osama and Purulia case.
In its 9.30 pm bulletin on May 06,2011, SUN News blacked out the story regarding the appearance of Kanimozhi before the court and focused instead on Osama’s Pak Connection, West Bengal Election and Gold Sale on Akshaya Thrithya day as the first three lead stories for ten minutes. At 9.40 pm, the news bulletin carried a promo on SUN Pictures’ film “Engeyum Kadal” as “news,” claiming among other things, that the film was a huge hit among fans, which the channel claims for every film produced under the group banner. This “news” went on until 9.45 pm!. As if this was not enough, this was immediately followed by a trailer of the film. So much for film promo as “news” and none for the news of the day. Ironically, the bulletin closed with the call to viewers: To learn about news as and when it happens, watch SUN News!
In my earlier writing entitled “Tamil Television and the Srilankan War” I dealt with the censorship and news blackouts resorted to by Tamil news channels during the May 2009 Tamil genocide in Sri Lanka. The anti-news behaviour of the 24 hour Tamil news channels as far as news blackouts are concerned has become a rather frequent occurrence. It was widely practiced during the campaign for the April 13 state elections. Political communication prospered during the last elections, thanks to political news channels, but at a great cost: the electorate were left wondering about the veracity of the stories as they seemed manipulative and propagandistic in content, style and technique. They effectively failed to “signalize” the event, the import of TN elections 2011 in an objective manner.
This being the norm in the so called news channels, one might say that one can not expect anything better from political channels. But the problematic of the case is not that we expect truthful accounts of events from these channels, but we expect a modicum of responsibility with regard to the primary arbiter of their profiles, that is news. We would not be complaining if they are not calling themselves as news channels and do not harp on the word “news” whenever they start their propaganda casts. Their profiles as news channels are legal entities and we as consumers of these news channels’ signals have a legally bound expectation that they would deliver news. In the absence of the same, there are two options left for the viewers and the Government of India. One option calls for complaints/suits under The Consumer Protection Act 1986 pointing out deficiency of service. This may be naive, but can work wonders if only the media literates among the television audience wake up and go after the news channels that either blacks out news or dishes out propaganda as news. The option before the Govt.of India is to put in place a pro-active policy regulator for maintaining standards in public interest in the form of FCC and take a rigorous policy of vetting the applications for news channels. News can not be handled by party controlled news channels and hence such possibilities can be averted in the application stage itself. Politicians and parties shall be allowed to start their channels,but they shall not be allowed to start mainstream news channels and mainstream entertainment channels that masquerade as propaganda machines.
1.Lippmann, Walter, Public Opinion, Harcourt, Brace and Co., NY, 1922.